I’ve been a perfectionist and attempted high achiever for as long as I can remember. Since I was little I knew I wanted to make some academic/research difference in the world. I remember reading Feynman’s autobiography in high school and how excited it made me for the future, how he was my idol. More recently, in the last few years my dreams have crystallized in being a computer science professor.
I know how difficult and unlikely it is. I know how much work it requires. But it makes so much sense for me to pursue this dream, given the practical implication and the chance to make a really positive impact in the field I enjoy the most. With that, of course always comes the tradeoff. Now is the best time for me to decicate myself fully to my dream, but at what cost?
What I noticed, but didn’t really pay attention to is the general level of stress climbing as I took on more and more. Freshman year I pushed away a lot of opportunities in favor of studying. That summer I dedicated myself to my internship with good results. I took a challenging courseload and started getting panic attacks sophomore year, adjusted a little but kept going. I felt that what I was taking on this year was a natural step up from what I had done previously.
I should have known this semester when my instructors said their courses had high, challenging workloads. When my friends and family told me that I was overcommitting. When every time I told people everything I was doing, they asked if I was alright. None of this was new. I’ve been on this ride four times, so of course the fifth time will be just fine.
I think the process of burning out is very gradual, but if you’re actively pushing away the symptoms because you think “oh, I just need to work harder on this”, “I’m capable enough to handle all this, and if I can’t then I cant accomplish my dream”, and “everyone else is working this hard”, you don’t notice it until it makes an unmistakable difference in your life. I woke up one day this week feeling really shitty, which isn’t all that uncommon. But I knew that something was different. It’s because I felt the shittiness was no longer temporary, it was a state of being that felt like it had no hope of going away.
What really makes me sad is that I enjoyed everything I did. Really, I justified my load by saying that everything was so amazing, I just had to do it all. The best part about college is that there’s so many amazing, great things to do. For me that also happens to be the worst part. It feels really nice when people compliment you on what you do, how smart you must be because you’re doing so many hard things. On a good day you get called a god, a math monster, a genius, the next Steve Jobs. You feel so far ahead of everyone else, you might just achieve your dream where many can’t. You have to live up to these expectations, because otherwise you’re not worthy of your dreams. I really hate to admit it, but I know that this social effect influenced me in doing more and I have to be honest about that.
I’ve had to drop most of my classes this semester and withdraw from many of my committments. Once I had decided to do this, I actually started relying on this fact to get me through the day. I started saying to myself “I will no longer have to care about this soon”, and it comforted me.
The failure still stings like nothing has. I’m legitimately worried about the future of my dream, but I know that’s not the most important thing for me to focus on right now. I’m still picking up the pieces, but I hope that this will give me focus going forward, and that it is possible to achieve my dream anyway without delusion or intense stress. Now I know that if that isn’t possible, then it simply isn’t worth it.
I’m not too sure what the point of me writing this is. It probably gives me comfort to speak in an authoritative way about something that I am still deeply unsure and insecure about in my life. It helps me to construct a narrative to justify what I’m doing when I still have that voice screaming at me to do more, and when no one tells me straight out that I’m doing the right thing. In the best case, it will help someone out there make the right decision if they’re in a similar place, as I know many people at Berkeley and elsewhere are. Feelings are fleeting, so maybe that person will be me several years down the road, when I need to remind myself of what happens when you push yourself too far.